The Fall of the House of Murdoch

Paul Raven @ 11-07-2011

While I’m not so optimistically convinced as some of my fellow Brits that Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has been as badly bloodied as we’d all like it to be, there’s no getting around the fact that the last week has seen a pretty spectacular sea-change in the relationship between British politics and the fourth estate. The BBC’s Paul Mason has a long searching post on these events which – very sensibly, I feel – contains more questions than confident analyses, and is well worth a read. It is a remarkable thing to see not just a very conspicuous case of, as he puts it, “the network defeating the hierarchy”, but to see so many people who were previously sceptical of the network’s power scratching their heads and wondering where the next sinkhole is going to open up.

I’m not naive enough to believe we’re driving headlong toward some sort of post-pyramid social utopia… far from it, in fact, as I suspect that – despite the spectacular scale of these clashes – these are merely the first border skirmishes between the crowd and the ziggurat rather than the culmination of a war. But even so, the Rejectionistas and cynics who’ve been telling us that the power of the network is illusory are sounding more behind the curve than ever.

The only certainty from here on in is change. Wear a helmet.

Anonymous: an anarchist analysis

Paul Raven @ 12-05-2011

Over at The Guardian, Jana Herwig gets all theoretical on Anonymous. It’s probably the most lucid attempt to tease out what Anonymous means in the context of the wider world that I’ve seen in any major publication. There’s also a glorious degree of cognitive dissonance to be had from reading about such an irreverent and vernacular entity in the high diction of academe:

This collective identity belongs to no one in particular, but is at the disposal of anyone who knows its rules and knows how to apply them. Anonymous, the collective identity, is older than Anonymous, the hacktvist group – more to the point, I propose that the hacktivist group can be understood as an application of Anonymous, the collective identity.

This identity originated on imageboard, as a byproduct of a user interface policy called forced anonymity, also known for short as “forced anon”.

Forced anon made it impossible for users to type in their name when they published a forum post. Instead, “Anonymous” would invariably appear as the default author name for any post. As a result, and in particular for the uninitiated, discussions on 4chan would seem like an absurd soliloquy, with “Anonymous” posting a message and “Anonymous” and “Anonymous” responding.

What this interface policy prevented was the creation of a hierarchy among users, which is known to quickly establish itself in online forums, with older forum members dominating and “newbies” having little weight in the discussion. Anonymous’s (the group’s) present dismissal of hierarchies and leadership has its roots in this practice. The uncertainty about who is talking (or probably just talking to him or herself, feigning conversation) is characteristic of the “forced anon” experience.

Herwig’s piece is in part a response to the recent schism within Anonymous; within any “normal” hierarchical group, such a schism would probably spell its imminent demise, but I suspect the very nature of Anonymous will ensure its survival, even if it mutates and undergoes a sort of metastasis. The choice of the V For Vendetta masks as part of their iconography is quite telling; the point Moore was making in the book about emergent resistance to hierarchy and fascistic control is echoed in the unpredictability of their target choices. Dissent cannot be bridled or steered; that is its power, and its self-limiting principle.

To unpack that last statement: self-identifying as a member of Anonymous is a lot like self-identifying as an anarchist, in that anyone can slip on the mask at any time, and the non-hierarchical nature of the collective means that there is no authority with the power to deny your validity. This has its downsides, in that it makes for easy pillorying and demonisation of the collective identity (such as the way that a few self-identifying anarchists bricking windows on protest marches are conveniently assumed to be representative of all anarchists), allowing a convenient way to obscure the genuine problems of hierarchy by focussing on the more foolhardy and socially unacceptable attacks made upon it.

But there are upsides, too, in that the more nihilistic wearers-of-the-badge tend to perform acts that are self-limiting in the long term; because the collective is headless, it cannot be destroyed, so the hierarchical world has to content itself with the sort of decapitations that symbolically represent the defeat of a system or group in their own narrative, while all they’re doing is trimming the wilder edge-growths of the rhizome and preventing it from becoming a hierarchy itself.

All of which is to say that I think Anonymous – and anarchism-as-philosophy – aren’t going anywhere soon; in fact, I’m beginning to think they’re an inevitable product of a global networked culture, a counterweight to the structure of society that increases in mass in proportion to the rigidity of the systems it opposes. Neither are an end-point or a goal; those that join in the hope that they are will soon leave, disappointed, because the individual reward they subconsciously seek for their actions are incompatible with the anonymity under which they are obliged to operate.

Of course, you may think I’m blowing pretentious smoke out of my own arse here; it wouldn’t be completely out of character, after all. So why not tell me why I’m wrong in the comments, eh? 🙂

Dethroning the conductor

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2011

As unsurprising as it might be to see an essay by a Christian theologian advocating submission to authority as one of the highest ideals of our political lives [via BigThink], I’m not in the mood to let it pass without comment. I think what really bugs me is the largely unquestioned elevation of hierarchy to sacred principle:

Austin gives the example of an orchestra. If I want to be free to play the violin in a well-performed Beethoven symphony, then I must submit myself to the authority of a conductor, for without the conductor the other musicians cannot be brought into coordination with my playing.

Submission to authority for the sake of freedom is not, as Simon recognized, a function of human sin but instead finitude. It’s not the case that an orchestra can just play if everybody is selfless and cooperative. Someone needs to guide the whole so that each player can concentrate on his or her part. Nobody can both play the violin and at the same time and conduct the orchestra.

The logic there is sound enough, but it’s built on the assumption that everyone wants to play through the precisely denoted structure of that Beethoven symphony, and the implication that anything else would be a cacophony of unpalatable noise, or at the very least inherently inferior to Beethoven.

Well, look: I spent three hours last night jamming with a handful of other musicians. We don’t play from sheet music; the band doesn’t “belong” to anyone; there is no conductor or leader. We take the simple rules of harmony and melody, and we start playing; music emerges. Sometimes it takes a little while to find a groove; sometimes there are bum notes, fumbled phrases, rhythmic slips. But sometimes we come up with stuff that transcends our individual abilities – little passages which, when we’ve finished playing, we discuss with a mixture of surprise and awe. There was no planning, no leadership, but we still created something amazing. Part of that comes from the selflessness that our theologian friend above claims is insufficient, but another part comes from the selfishness of occasionally feeling that one knows what the moment demands, and the willingness to step out of the groove and extend it upwards, outwards, inwards, wherever.

The orchestral analogy’s appeal to a theologian is pretty obvious: the orchestra first has to recieve the text of the piece, a rule-set handed down to them by a distant authority figure whom they can only hope to partially channel and glorify; the text then has to be interpreted by the conductor, who plays no part in the creation of the symphony beyond grafting a personal vision and interpretation to the text. The musician’s place is to play what he is told, just as the communicant’s place is to accept, without question, the interpretation of God’s word as filtered through his priest.

This obviously works for many people, but not for all. The music I made with friends last night wasn’t perfect, wasn’t planned, but it was all the more glorious for that, because we made it without constraints. We accepted our individual failings at the same time that we accepted our individual achievements. We participated in an act of creation on equal terms, and were brought closer together as people in the process. (I imagine any other musician would agree that playing in a band lets you get to know people in an intellectually more intimate manner than other forms of friendship, and I’m sure the same goes for other acts of collaborative creation.)

So, keeping that in mind, back to our theologian:

That’s why nobody actually wants “participatory democracy,” a non-hierarchical fantasy that progressive political theorists often champion. It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good. As Herbert McCabe observed: “Society is not the product of individual people. On the contrary, individual people are the product of society.”


The expansion of political responsibility beyond a certain point would absorb our private lives, a result that entails the opposite of what most people intend when they endorse political liberty. Like the violinist who can’t concentrate on his part and conduct at the same time, finite human beings don’t have enough energy to attend to the ordinary duties of life and bring about world revolution.

Did you get that? You don’t really want freedom. Indeed, hierarchy is necessary, because without it we couldn’t enjoy the luxury of our lack of control over it. The shepherd graciously allows the sheep to revel in the pleasure of sheepdom; the price of never being eaten by wolves is to be kept safe until the shepherd has need of a meal. And let’s just repeat a phrase to be sure it sinks in:

It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good.

I cannot read that sentence and parse it in any way that makes logical sense to me, except as an indicator of a mindset that destroys lives and ruins the world the we live upon. “Daddy knows best.”

Regular readers can probably see the sociopolitical direction in which I’m driving, so I’ll stop before I belabour it too badly… but not before pointing out that when an orchestra finishes playing, it is the conductor who takes the bow, and takes the glory that the musicians have laboured for.

Rushkoff: abandon internet, build its successor

Paul Raven @ 05-01-2011

Over at Shareable, Doug Rushkoff crystallises a bunch of post-Wikileaks thoughts that have been knocking around in my head into one (fairly) coherent statement:

… the Internet was never truly free, bottom-up, decentralized, or chaotic. Yes, it may have been designed with many nodes and redundancies for it to withstand a nuclear attack, but it has always been absolutely controlled by central authorities. From its Domain Name Servers to its IP addresses, the Internet depends on highly centralized mechanisms to send our packets from one place to another.

The ease with which a Senator can make a phone call to have a website such as Wikileaks yanked from the net mirrors the ease with which an entire top-level domain, like say .ir, can be excised. And no, even if some smart people jot down the numeric ip addresses of the websites they want to see before the names are yanked, offending addresses can still be blocked by any number of cooperating government and corporate trunks, relays, and ISPs. That’s why ministers in China finally concluded (in cables released by Wikileaks, no less) that the Internet was “no threat.”

I’m not trying to be a downer here, or knock the possibilities for networking. I just want to smash the fiction that the Internet is some sort of uncontrollable, decentralized free-for-all, so that we can get on with the business of creating something else that is.

That “something else” is basically a peer-to-peer network similar to the existing internet, but one that is completely unreliant on corporate/gubernatorial/non-commons infrastructure like optical fibre. Rushkoff is honest enough to admit he doesn’t have the answers, but he’s surely asking the right questions:

Shall we use telephony, ham radio, or some other part of the spectrum? Do we organize overlapping meshes of WiMax? Do we ask George Soros for some money? MacArthur Foundation? Do we even need or want them or money at all? How might the funding of our network by a central bank issued currency, or a private foundation, or a public university, bias the very architecture we are trying to build? Who gets the ability to govern or limit what may spread over our network, if anyone? Should there be ways for us to transact?

To make the sorts of choices that might actually yield our next and truly decentralized network, we must take a good look at the highly centralized real world in which we live – as well as how it got that way. Only by understanding its principles, reckoning with the forces at play, and accepting the battles we have already lost, might we begin to forge ahead to create new forms that exist beyond any authority’s ability to grant them protection.

I’m no network engineer, but I’m pretty sure that an ad-hoc and rhizomatic peer-to-peer network based on some cableless connection like wi-fi is possible, at least in theory. Anyone in the audience able to tell me why I’m wrong? Or, better still, how we can build it?

Jaron Lanier on Wikileaks

Paul Raven @ 22-12-2010

The Wikileaks story just keeps on rolling, but in defiance of the cliché it’s picking up a fair bit of moss as it goes. At the risk of repeating arguments made, well, pretty much everywhere (and to reiterate a point I made before), it’s quite possible to be supportive or generally approving of Wikileaks as a principle and as an organisation at the same time as thinking Julian Assange to be a serious douchebag who’s responding to the limelight like weeds to the springtime sun… though the caveat there is that most of what we’re hearing of Assange’s public statements is being filtered through other news organisations whose fondness for Wikileaks is less than complete. The truth remains obscure, in other words.

That said, it’s been interesting – and heartening – to watch the results of genuine grassroots action as regards the #MooreAndMe rape apologism campaigns; it’s a horrible way for it to have happened (and a horrible that it should even be necessary), but I can’t help but feel that there’s a good side to the way that discussion and criticism of mainstream cultural attitudes to rape have been brought out from the marginalised sidelines of feminism into highly visible layers of public discourse. Granted, it’s been rather like overturning a rotten log in a gloomy forest, but that’s the price of progress, I suppose; a societal problem can’t be fixed until society becomes conscious of it. Sunlight, disinfectant, you know the drill.

So to the tireless folk behind the #MooreAndMe hashtag, my utmost respect. As hard as it might be to believe for a regular reader of this site, there are times when I realise that the most helpful thing I can do is shut up and let people who really know what they’re talking about do their thing. Perhaps stepping back from the fight isn’t as useful as pitching in, but personal experience dictates that the greatest of harm can result from the best of intentions, and that one learns much more from listening than flapping one’s own uninformed lips.

But there’s one commentary link-out that needs to be made, and it’s to Jaron Lanier’s Wikileaks piece at The Atlantic. I’m by no means in complete agreement with it on a number of points, and there’s a slightly patronising “yeah, I was once naive enough to believe all that stuff, too, but I done growed up” undertone to it that grates somewhat… but of all the negative responses to Wikileaks I’ve read so far, it’s by far the most cognisant of the playing field it discusses, and the first that has really made me think hard about my own stance on the matter. It’s a long one, and not easy to yank quotes from while maintaining context, so just go read the whole thing… whether you’re for or against.

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